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Bean to Bar: Local man’s film explores artisan chocolate makers

Oct 3rd, 2013 | Category: Crafts

Local screening includes chocolate samples from regional makers

by Brent Cole

Local documentarian and studio owner, “Binary” Bob Ridgley, recently finished a film on a topic near and dear to his heart – or, more appropriately, his stomach. “Bean to Bar” explores the world of artisan chocolate makers in the United States and their recent gain in popularity.

A chocolate lover since he was a child, a few years ago Bob realized he wanted to learn more about chocolate and its origin. He spent the next five months researching good chocolate – where it came from, how it was made and who was making it. What he found was a small (but growing) group of artisans who had become deeply involved in the chocolate making process – from bean to bar. The Craft Chocolate Makers of America – made up of eight chocolate producers – were changing the way chocolate was being made and the way it was appreciated in the process, helping spawn a mini-revolution in the industry.

A still from the documentary: sharing chocolate with the growers. COURTESY IMAGE

Where the cacao comes from is a vital aspect of the chocolate’s taste – the bean can only be produced within 20 degrees of the equator. With those geographic limitations, there is only one grower in North America. Bob Cooper, who owns a plantation on Kona, Hawaii, said different regions have different flavors. “Madagascar has more of a citrus, lemon flavor while New Guinea has a smoky taste,” he said enthusiastically. He added, “Artisan maker brings out the flavors that industrial makers don’t.”

Small-scale makers instead work directly with the farmers, from bean cultivation through the drying process, all the way up to the export. “The artisan chocolate maker goes to specific origins,” said Bob, “they find small batch chocolates and emphasizes the chocolate in the bean.”

While examining the process of artisan chocolate making, the film also shines light on fair trade chocolate, which doesn’t have the connection that artisan makers do. With fair trade chocolate, the chocolate maker works with a large co-op, buying beans in bulk that farmers have supplied. There is no direct link from the farmer to the producer, instead a farmer will spend their entire year growing and harvesting the bean, trek three days to a market and sell 40 pounds for $35.

After the artisan chocolate producer has the beans in their processing facility, they use a grinding wheel to turn the bean into a powder (as opposed the hammer method used in industrial chocolate factories). Most of the producers have hunted the world looking for chocolate making equipment from prior centuries, and then refurbishing it. One maker, Rob Anderson, of the Lynden-based company Fresco, and  belonging to the Craft Chocolate Makers of America, could not locate any equipment, so the engineer by trade designed it himself. The use of a grinding wheel is labor intensive and takes approximately 10 times longer, but the end result is finer, more pure chocolate.

From there, the artisan chocolate makers have their different tricks for cooking and producing the chocolate. Some are a little more guarded about how they produce it. “In a few instances, they wouldn’t let me shoot some of it,” Bob said with a chuckle.

The end result, though, is pure heaven. “You eat it and your eyes light up,” Bob stated. “You taste all these things that you couldn’t believe were part of the chocolate.” He added, “There’s more of a connection with the farmers and caring for the farmers. And when they do, they make better chocolate and everyone wins in the end.”

Bean to Bar will be shown Saturday, Oct. 19 at 5:30 p.m. at the Pickford Film Center in Bellingham. Ticket holders will be able to sample artisan chocolates from regional makers for the half hour prior to the film. Chocolate makers include Rob Anderson from Fresco Chocolates (Lynden), Forte Chocolate (Mount Vernon), Kevin Buck from Chocolate Necessities (Bellingham) and Erin Andrews from Indie Chocolate (Seattle). A Q&A follows the film.

Published in the October 2013 issue of Grow Northwest

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